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The modern orchestral percussion section can vary from a few standard instruments to a whole arsenal, depending on the demands of the music. Percussion instruments made their way into the orchestra relatively late, as references to European military music or, for a more exotic flavor, in imitation of the Ottoman janissary bands which terrorized Europe for centuries. The most standard percussion instruments today are the timpani, the xylophone or marimba, the gong or tam-tam, the snare or side drum and the cymbals.
Modern orchestral cymbals are a pair of large round plates of metal, the exact constituents and processing of which are the makers’ secrets. Played in many ancient cultures, they may have come to us from Central Asia, via China. The most typical use in the modern orchestra method is to hold the pair vertically, clashing them together with a swift up-and-down movement. There are many other techniques and types of cymbals, called for especially in jazz: the hi-hat (pedal operated), “splash,” “ride,” “bounce” and “sizzle.”
Source: The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.,  ISBN 0-333-43236-3